Researchers at the San Diego Zoo recognize the important role partnerships can play in conservation.
“The relationship our organization has with our partners in China has been exceptional. It has led to many achievements and accomplishments that we could not have achieved alone,” said Paul Baribault, president and CEO of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, in an exclusive interview with China Daily.
Giant pandas Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived at the San Diego Zoo from China in 1996 as part of a 12-year loan program that was later extended to more than 23 years.
The animals were threatened with extinction at the time of their arrival. According to Xinhua, there were just over 1,100 giant pandas living in China’s wilderness in the 1980s. By 2021, that number had risen to over 1,800. The growth prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to remove the giant panda from the endangered species list in 2016.
Baribault said a lasting partnership the zoo has forged with its Chinese conservation partners over the years has contributed to the giant panda’s growing population.
“It speaks to the power of working together, what can be achieved together,” he said.
Giant pandas are known for their low reproductive rate. In addition, when baby pandas are born, the mother panda only takes care of one of the cubs. To keep the newborns alive, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance worked with Chinese scientists at panda sanctuaries to develop a milk formula that boosted the survival rate of nursery-reared panda cubs from 0 to 95 percent.
“It’s one of the things that by working together through assessing dietary needs, we’ve been able to really pick up the pandas where they were,” Baribault said.
The zoo also performed the first successful artificial insemination of a giant panda in the United States, Baribault said. The result was the birth of Hua Mei in August 1999, the first US-born panda cub to survive to adulthood. Since then, she has given birth to 11 cubs of her own in China.
“And you think of this history of collaboration that didn’t just happen when one team did one thing and another team did another thing. It was through shared participation, shared engagement, celebrating each other’s successes and navigating each other’s losses together to see what we’ve seen today is this amazing turn in the panda’s future,” Baribault said.
Bai Yun gave birth to six different cubs during her stay at the zoo. She and her youngest son Xiao Liwu, the two remaining pandas, were repatriated to China in 2019 under the terms of the loan agreement.
Bai Yun is now the great-grandmother of four generations of boys who started in San Diego and continue to grow in China. The panda, now 31, lives in Dujiangyan, the site of the China Giant Panda Conservation Research Center.
“It’s been truly incredible to see this journey and to reflect on our role as an organization, the role we’ve played in it is both humbling and powerful at the same time,” said Baribault.
The zoo is taking panda conservation to the next level with a new program called Panda Plus, Baribault said. It would build on the concept of “alliance” and partnership, as the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s name implies, he said.
The program aims to capitalize on the zoo’s connection with Southern California’s large Chinese diaspora and “aligns itself with communicating about shared partnerships and shared goals to foster a truly global understanding,” he said.
“At the same time, we can bring this incredibly diverse interdisciplinary conservation team to the next generation of panda conservation work. So, whether it’s healthcare, nutrition, disease research, or studying all the different aspects of panda, how can we maintain a healthy panda population for the future, we can bring our unique knowledge and skills to bear in collaboration with our Chinese partners,” said Baribault.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first panda pair in the United States. There is “no better example” of what a partnership could achieve than the success of the US-China panda story, he said.
“When I think back over the last 50 years, I see a very bright future because I see the value in connecting people and wildlife. And as a result, wildlife has a powerful ability to connect people to cultures, we open our minds to understand cultures differently, we open our minds to understand cultures better, and wildlife disarms us in that way,” he said.
The panda program is “a cornerstone” in the zoo’s history, Baribault said.
“The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is 106 years old. This (panda) program represents quite a large part of our history. It’s one we look back on with great pride and we look forward to all the potential that a strong Panda program may hold in the future,” he said.